The social network is at the heart of many customer service and PR departments for both the large and small business. The most important aspect of any small business is the customer; the person or organisation that buys your products and services and in many cases will be able to move their trade based on price and customer service. Keeping customers both informed and satisfied is an essential part of any small business organisations success and even more so if your customer base is very small or very new. Today i will show you how social networking can help that.
The multitude of general and specialist websites offering a social network service quite literally encompass the alphabet from Academia.Edu to Zooppa but not all of them are relevant to offering the customer an information outlet for your product or service; or to answer their complaint or criticism. To narrow down the list to the social network choices that should be important to small business we will look at the most popular mainstream social network providers as well as a quick look at some examples of this is embraced by the larger corporate.
Starting to Decline - But Still Worth Investment
With in excess of 800 Million registered users, Facebook is an extensive social network to tap into as a source of free customer service and PR. Registering first as an individual, Facebook allows you to create brand pages in order to communicate with your customers and in these instances you can customise your page so that anything that you say is said by the brand as an entity rather than as you the individual. As a social network, the website is designed to capture as much personal information that its users want to give and still be asking for more, it can offer businesses much more than just a free look into the lives of those that wants to associate with you.
Along with providing answers and information on the wall though, you can offer an outlet for fixed and standard answers to frequently asked questions. Taking the example of bus operator First Hampshire & Dorset their information page provides information about their head office, their customer service hours and their contact phone numbers.
Many organisations have a hands on approach to their Facebook accounts. We have already mentioned the First Hampshire who offer a personal service on Facebook answering questions and providing guidance where they can. Where the customer needs to discuss their account or confirm personal details the lack of the secure messaging facility means that both large and small business users will need an alternative contact, via a website contact page, e-mail or non-internet based.
The thing to watch at the moment with Facebook though is it's medium-term future. The occasional report is published which says that the number of users active on Facebook is in decline and I know from personal experience that my friends and I are using the site much less now. That is not to say that the significance has led to a mass exodus and there are still plenty of people to preach to on a regular basis.
The popular social network with a 140-character limit has creative impact on both the user and business. From the user's biography to each individual message that is the maximum length you have; but customer service and PR departments still thrive on Twitter from a customer service point of view as well as advertising.
The management of Twitter accounts is somewhat more relaxed than on the Facebook social network. Business and Individual users are treated as equal because you do not need to be a personal user to have a brand account. This facility cuts out the need for redirecting the user to the official web domain, however at the same time I would suggest that a small business would not rely on a third-party social network to secure support the Direct Messaging facility.
The management of promotions and special offers is slightly more difficult to keep active on Twitter compared to some of its social network peers. The core design of Twitter means that messages (or "tweets") have a very short lifespan in the public domain because of the vast number of messages being sent. Even if a particular user is following your Twitter contributions, the more accounts they follow will result on how long your message stays close to the top of their timeline and very quickly become lost under a weight of conversations and advertising.
For the small business that can be particularly frustrating. Sending out a tweet for an important announcement might be necessary several times to be noticed by more than a few users and this could require the dedication of staff that might be better used elsewhere.
From a customer service point of view though, one of the intricacies of the Twitter system is that users get told when you have specifically replied or mentioned them. This feature is separate from the users main feed of tweets, whether they use Twitter's own web-based system or one of the many applications available that will organise your account for you. This means that even if you reply after hours, then the user is more likely to receive the reply when they next log in to their Twitter account and is as beneficial as e-mail contact, albeit without the transmission of personal details - it’s still a publicly viewable post.
For the small business that operates as a service provider and not a supplier, Twitter is much more effective at providing real-time updates to your service provision. One such example of this is the UK National Rail Enquiries updates. In the South West Trains variant of the service the service information is maintained and up to date including "breaking news" of incidents and as of October 2011 has in excess of 5000 people and businesses receiving updates into their personal timeline. There are additional facilities that both large and small business users can take advantage of, such as providing a feed of their tweets on a core business website and this can add to ensuring update to date information on the latter.
For the small business aimed at building a business-to-business relationship, promotion within a single brand or market is something that would appeal within LinkedIn. Small business users should remember that unlike Facebook and Twitter, the core of the LinkedIn community is towards business-to-business marketing and not at the consumer. For this reason, things are considerably different to what we have already looked at and the difference is clear in the lack of consumer targeted advertising from larger organisations.
The prominence on the LinkedIn social network is the individual. Although there is the ability for all users to add new companies to the website, there is no separate corporate presence in the way that Facebook allows a company to have a distinguishable and separate identity. When you consider the first point that LinkedIn is B2B dominant, it is easy to see that business transactions occur on a personal level within business and it is reasonable to expect that a named person within a business is preferred to dealing with a business name.
Small business owners can interact with like-minded people as well as those working within larger corporate in groups dedicated to as many professional and business subjects as you would find in Facebook. An example of a page dedicated to our same cause is one of Social Media Marketing where discussions range from offering your contact details for networking, to effective strategy for getting a following on Facebook.
Inevitably having a professional level profile requires a dedication to keeping it updated. If you are looking for customers or suppliers on LinkedIn an element of credibility is more useful than on other social network sites and therefore ensuring that contact details, previous experience and educational attainments is seen as beneficial, as is trying to expand your personal network of connections on the site.
Now that "corporate presence" is available, Google+ for Business is possibly a big potential failure. The new interface only allows a single use to be responsible for the page, no good if your marketing department is big, but if your small business is promoting a few products or brands then the benefit is there to gain support and attract users into your circles and showing the need for your particular product or brand. If you were considering the corporate identity as opposed to the personal, then Google+ might be the way forward for you, but if you are going to employ many staff to deal with it; the difficulties are going to make it long-haul.
There are other social network sites that are less indebted to the power of the small business. Of those that are of note are MySpace, Tumblr and Friends Reunited; all of which are of minimal utility to either small business or start-up. This is predominantly because of the direction of the personal social network and the distinction away from the business identity.
Overall, there are two levels of small business representation on the social network. For the customer service perspective of a business to consumer relationship, Facebook requires the dedication of keeping the existing followers interested whereas the user is noticing the difficulty of Twitter in the first instance.
If you are considering a small business or start-up with B2B marketing in mind, then the way to go is LinkedIn, but keeping your profile active and current is the key to attracting new business to your personal social network.
Unfortunately, with a fast-moving sector such as social media there will always be an unknown. Now it is the "in need of development" Google+ and how this new social network will react with a corporate userbase is an unknown, but those that are looking to promote themselves as their business should already be ready to embrace and contribute to the community.